A Quick Guide To What Piano Pedals Are Used For | Piano Marvel

A Quick Guide To What Piano Pedals Are Used For

The piano, with its full tonal qualities and vast range, is a dynamic instrument of unlimited expression. Integral to its expressive capabilities are the three traditional pedals: the sustain pedal, the sostenuto pedal, and the soft pedal. These pedals add richness and nuance to the music being played. Understanding how to use these pedals effectively can elevate your playing, adding depth and character to your performance.

Let’s take a look at each of these three traditional pedals of the modern piano.

The Sustain Pedal or Damper Pedal

The sustain pedal, or damper pedal, is the right-most positioned pedal on a piano. It is generally the most frequently used pedal on the piano. When depressed, it lifts the dampers off the strings, allowing them to vibrate freely. This action results in a sustained sound, even after the keys are released. The sustain pedal enables legato playing, helps in connecting notes smoothly, and can be used to create a dramatic sound quality.

Effective use of the sustain pedal requires precise timing. Releasing the pedal too soon can disrupt the musical flow or create unwanted staccato effects. On the other hand, releasing the pedal too late can introduce an element of muddiness to the musical quality as sustained tones mix with successive ones.

Video courtesy of Cunningham Piano Company

The Soft Pedal or Una Corda Pedal

The soft pedal, also known by its Italian name una corda, is the left-most positioned pedal on the piano. In modern pianos, there are generally anywhere from 220 to 240 strings with 230 being most common. That means that most notes on a piano (except the lowest bass notes) have either two or three strings associated with them. The way the soft pedal works on a grand piano is that it shifts the position of the action, and therefore the hammers, horizontally to the right so that they strike fewer strings per note. In earlier pianos, most notes would only have two strings associated with them, so when the hammers would shift they would strike only “one string”, or una corda–hence the origin of the pedal name.

This pedal effect modifies the piano’s timbre and, as a result, the notes are generally much softer, gentler, more mellow, and less percussive. This pedal is mostly used to change the tone or mood of a piece of music. It's often used for passages that require a delicate touch or a change in tone color.

On an upright piano, this soft pedal is known instead as the half-blow pedal.  It serves a similar function to that of the una corda pedal, but it obtains the muted sound in a different way.  Instead of the entire piano action shifting to the right and slightly offset from the strings, the entire action is shifted forward toward the strings, reducing the striking distance between the hammers and the strings.  This, then, also results in a softer or more mellow tonal quality being produced.

To use the soft pedal, press it down with your left foot to engage the mechanism and release it to return to the normal sound. Experiment with this pedal to achieve different tonal colors and dynamics in your playing.

Video courtesy of The Piano Technician Academy

The Sostenuto Pedal

The third pedal generally found on a piano is the middle pedal and it is known as the sostenuto pedal. It is like a selective sustain pedal. It holds only the notes that are being depressed at the time the pedal is depressed, allowing the player to sustain certain notes while others remain unaffected. This pedal is particularly useful for compositions where a sustained bass note is needed alongside a staccato melody.

Video courtesy of Roberts Pianos (UK) / Roberts Pianos (USA)

It’s important to note that while many grand pianos have a sostenuto pedal, some other pianos such as uprights, consoles, or spinets do not. Additionally, the middle pedal on some pianos has a different function than that of the sostenuto pedal. Here are some of the other functions the middle pedal can have:

1.  It can function as a bass damper.  This is essentially a partial sustain mechanism, with ​​the middle pedal operating like the sustain pedal, but only for the bass notes.

2.  It can function as a practice pedal, practice mute, or celeste pedal.  In this case, the middle pedal is used to reduce the volume of the piano by inserting a thin layer of felt between the hammers and the strings. It’s important to note that while this operation is meant to mute the entire piano (often even more than the soft pedal), it functions completely differently from the sostenuto pedal or the bass damper pedal.  This function is almost exclusively found on upright pianos.

3.  It can function as a silent pedal.  This option works by dropping a silencing rail between the hammer and strings of the piano, effectively stopping the piano from producing an acoustic sound. Instead, underneath each of the piano keys, there are infrared sensors that determine what notes are being played, and then that information is transmitted to an electronic device which then converts the data to a digital piano sound that is routed through a set of headphones. This ultimately allows individuals to play without disturbing others around them.

4.  It can function as a novelty pedal.  Similar to the celeste pedal, the novelty rail, or mandolin rail, lowers a series of leather, vinyl, or fabric strips in between the hammers and the strings. At the end of these strips are metal clips, tabs, or nubs which, when struck by the hammer, are percussed against the strings, producing the brighter metallic sounds associated with a ragtime, rinky-tink, or honky-tonk piano.  Also like the celeste pedal function, this function is almost always associated with upright pianos as well.

5.  It can have no function at all!  On rare occasions, the middle pedal serves no purpose other than a cosmetic one. It is connected to nothing, and does nothing, other than to look aesthetically pleasing–essentially making a two-pedal piano look more “sophisticated”.

Check out this example of a Novelty Pedal creating a rinky-tink sound on an acoustic piano


Mastering the pedals is a crucial aspect of piano playing, contributing significantly to a pianist's expressive capability. The sustain, sostenuto, and soft pedals each serve unique functions that, when employed skillfully, can transform a piece of music.

With the support of Piano Marvel, learners have a comprehensive tool at their fingertips, enabling them to explore the depths of musical expression and refine their pedal technique. Embrace this blend of traditional skill and modern technology to help unlock your full potential as a pianist.

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